How to do Smoke Photography
How to Photograph Smoke
Smoke photography, which is the art of photographing the pattern and movement of smoke, is a challenging project that can yield impressive and artistic results when executed properly. Because of smoke’s nature, it’s difficult to capture it on film, and photographing it requires more preparation than other subjects. However, photographing smoke can be done, it just requires the right equipment and camera settings, the right stage setting, and the right environmental controls.
Setting up the Room
Gather your equipment.In order to photograph smoke properly, you need a smoke source, the right camera settings, some supplies to set the stage, and some specific camera equipment. For this project, you will need two small tables and a:
- Smoke source, such as incense (and a lighter)
- Black cloth
- DSLR camera
- Halogen floodlight
- Off-camera flash with radio trigger or cord
Choose a smoke source.One of the favored smoke sources for this type of photography is incense, because a single stick will burn for about 45 minutes, giving you plenty of time to snap a few perfect photographs.
- Instead of incense, you can also use a cigarette, candles, or any other smoke source available to you.
Place your smoke source on a table.Choose a wall for your backdrop and place a small table in front of it. Place the incense on the table, about a meter (roughly three feet) in front of the wall.
- If you're using an incense stick, make sure the incense is perpendicular to the wall, with the tip facing directly away from the wall.
- Make sure you use a proper holder for the incense, or secure it in place by sticking it into a ball of playdough. If you're using a cigarette or candle instead, use an ashtray or candle holder to hold your smoke source.
Hang a black cloth behind the smoke source.On the wall behind the table, hang up a large black cloth. You can pin it, tape it, or hang it on a string, but the important thing is that the cloth lies flat against the wall.
- This will be the background against which your smoke will be photographed, so you want the backdrop to be dark, flat, and smooth.
Set up a lamp.In order to photograph the smoke, it needs to be properly illuminated. Take a halogen floodlight or a bright lamp and position it in front of the table, to the right or left of the incense. Think of the incense as the center of a clock and the wall as 12:00: place the lamp at 3 o’clock or 9 o’clock.
- If need be, place the lamp on a separate table so that you can aim it properly.
- Point the light directly at the smoke source. For incense or a cigarette, direct the light at the tip of the incense or cigarette. For a candle, point the light at the tip of the flame.
Position the flash and reflector.Place the flash on the opposite side of the lamp. So if you place the lamp at 3 o’clock, position the flash at 9 o’clock, and vice versa. Aim the flash at the tip of the incense, and not at the background.Position the reflector opposite the flash, near the lamp.
- If you don’t have a reflector, use a piece of white cardboard, Bristol board, or aluminum foil instead.
- Sync the radio trigger with your camera or attach the flash and camera with your cord.
Control the elements in the room.In order to keep the smoke from dispersing, close all the windows, turn off fans, and seal off anything that might create a draft in the room. Similarly, to make the smoke more visible and easier to photograph, close the doors, blinds, and turn off all additional lights in the room.
- Turning off the lights doesn’t apply to the lamp or flash you’ve set up for the photo shoot.
Fire up your smoke source.Light your incense, cigarette, or candle. To light the incense, hold a flame to the tip until the tip catches fire. Let the tip burn for a moment until it glows red, then blow out the flame.
- Place the smoke source into its holder and walk away. Allow the air in the room to settle and the smoke to establish itself.
Finding the Right Camera Settings
Use the right format.There are some particular camera settings that will make it much easier to photograph smoke, and this includes the format you use and the exposure settings.
- Use the raw image format on your camera, because this will produce higher quality photos.
Adjust the exposure and settings.For the best results, you will need to adjust and set your aperture, ISO, white balance, and shutter speed. This will help keep your camera focused, reduce visual noise, and guarantee that you get optimal lighting for your shoot.If you're using a tripod, set the camera on the tripod directly in front of the incense (at 6 o’clock) and:
- Set the aperture to f/8 or f9, as this will ensure the camera is able to focus properly on all the smoke.
- Set the ISO to 100 to reduce visual noise.
- Set the white balance to either auto, shade, daylight, or tungsten.Take a few shots with each and see which one you prefer.
- Set the shutter speed between 1/160 and 1/200, and make sure your flash is set to the same.
Aim and focus the camera.Turn on the lamp you're using to illuminate the smoke. Aim the camera at the tip of the incense and set it into focus. This will ensure you capture as much of the smoke as possible, and that it will all be clear.
- When this is done, aim the camera slightly upward so you no longer see the tip of the incense.
Take pictures.Start with a few test shots and then make adjustments as necessary. You may need to adjust the flash (and consequently the shutter speed), and perhaps the white balance. Once you get the settings to your liking, take as many photographs as you like.
- Once you’ve taken some shots, you can use air and movement to change the shape and direction of the smoke if you're looking for a particular effect.
- To move the smoke, you can blow on it, fan it, or just move around to disturb the air.
Editing the Image With an Image Program
Adjust the brightness and contrast.You can use a photo editing program to touch up photos, make a few changes, or completely alter them if you wish. Adjusting the brightness and contrast is a basic touch up that will make the smoke brighter and the background darker, and that added contrast will make the smoke appear more prominent against the background.
- Go to the Image tab, then select Adjustments, and then Brightness and Contrast.
- Adjust the levels by manually changing the numbers, or by moving the sliding scale until you’ve found the contrast you like.
Invert the background and foreground colors.Inverting the colors will make the smoke dark and the background light, instead of having light smoke against a dark background.
- Go to the Image tab, followed by Adjustments. Select Invert.
- If you don’t like the shade of the background color after reversing the colors, adjust the contrast and brightness.
Remove bright spots.Ash and other particles can cause bright spots in your photographs when you're working with smoke, and you can remove them with the help of an editing program. To remove bright spots:
- Use the clone tool, which allows you to take one part of an image and replicate it in another area of the image.
- Take a sample of the area you want to clone or copy. Then select a brush size to suit the bright spot, and paint over the bright spot with the sample from the cloned area.
Add colors to the smoke.Adding color allows you to change the smoke from its natural state and add your own personal touch. To do this, go to Image, then Adjustments, then Hue and Saturation.
- Using this tool, you can add or remove colors from the photograph.
- To add multiple colors in a rainbow effect, use the gradient fill tool.
Video: How to do Smoke Photography
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